(Content note: This post is about childhood sexual abuse, both in the Catholic church and my personal experience. So, strong trigger warning on this one. I’m putting the whole post after the cut. Also, this post might be a bit ramble-y; the topic is a pretty big trigger for me, too.)
I was reading through some of my favorite news sites the other day, and I kept coming across this story about a Catholic priest, Father Benedict Groeschel, saying some really terrible shit about the sexual abuse of children. Like, nausea-inducing terrible. Here are a few quotes:
“Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.”
“Here’s this poor guy — [Penn State football coach Jerry] Sandusky — it went on for years. Interesting: Why didn’t anyone say anything? Apparently, a number of kids knew about it and didn’t break the ice. Well, you know, until recent years, people did not register in their minds that it was a crime. It was a moral failure, scandalous; but they didn’t think of it in terms of legal things…If you go back 10 or 15 years ago with different sexual difficulties —except for rape or violence — it was very rarely brought as a civil crime. Nobody thought of it that way.”
“It’s an understandable thing…”
I kept reading about this man and the things he said, and I knew I wanted to write a post about it, but I couldn’t even approach it until today. Thinking about what I wanted to say or how I wanted to start was paralyzing my thinking. And making me feel very, very tired. It was making me so damn anxious because I knew that if I wrote about what is so wrong with what this man said, I would need to come at it from a very personal angle. I know it would be possible for some people to write about this in a very detached, “here’s why this is wrong because studies prove…” kind of way (and I’m sure people have), but I need to come at it from my experience. I need to do it for me.
When I was very young, I was sexually abused by a family member. And dammit, that was hard to type. I don’t discuss it with many people. My medical professionals know. My husband knows. A few close friends know. That’s it. I feel that it is so, so important for survivors to speak out, but it is so, so hard to do. Mostly because a frightening number of people share Father Groeschel’s attitude.
I didn’t tell anyone until 6 or 7 years ago, because I internalized those harmful ideas and others like them. “It wasn’t that bad.” (Physically, no. No it wasn’t. It was “gentle” molestation, not violent rape. Mentally? It was pretty fucking bad. I’ll get to that.) “Eh, it happens to a lot of people.” (Sadly, that’s very true. Still terrible. It shouldn’t happen to anyone.) “You probably brought it on yourself.” (No. I was a child. My abuser was a grown-ass man. He is the responsible party, not me.) “It’s not a big deal, you should be over it by now.” (It was a big deal. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be “over it.”) “Why do you want to ruin a man’s life over a little touching? People make mistakes!” (Sexual abuse is not a mistake on the abuser’s part. My abuser made a deliberate choice to engage in damaging, selfish behavior. I am not responsible for any consequences he faces. He is.)
I broke through that bullshit denial and minimization when I was “enjoying” my 6th or 7th stay on an inpatient mental health unit. One of the other patients shared his story about being sexually abused as a child, and it felt like every single cell in my body reacted. I can’t even describe it (but I’ll try, anyway): I instantly felt nauseated and started shaking. All of my skin felt prickly. It felt like my brain was screaming. I knew that what happened to me was something that I needed to get out (actually, it was remarkably similar to the “I need to push NOW!” feeling I had when birthing my children). But I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t have the words. Luckily, one of the nurses on the unit noticed that I was having some kind of reaction, and he took me aside, and he made me talk about it. And he believed me. He didn’t judge me. And he assured me that, yes, it IS a big deal. I am so, so thankful for that. Because after finally word-vomiting up what had been rotting inside me, I started to heal.
I spoke to my assigned psychiatrist about it, about how I was finally ready to work through the abuse, and it was decided (with my input) that I would be court-ordered to a state psychiatric hospital for 90 days. (Court order is the only way in, I wasn’t able to commit myself voluntarily.) I needed that time away from the rest of the world to deal with some of that shit. Especially without constant input from my family-of-origin. It worked. I mean, I still have problems. I’m not over the abuse, I’m not over a lot of other things. And I firmly believe that my mental health diagnosis does involve problems with my brain chemistry. But sicking up that terrible thing that I always told myself wasn’t a big deal? It helped. Immensely. I have not been hospitalized since I left the state hospital. I met and married my husband soon after. I have not attempted suicide. I recently had the courage to cut off contact from my mother and her side of the family (the side my abuser is a part of). I’m getting better. I finally know what it feels like to be happy.
I’m lucky; so many other survivors won’t have that chance to start healing, or they will have to go through more pain than I did, and that is directly because of shit like the things Father Groeschel said. That is why I have to write this, and post this. I want people to know that this man IS wrong. That rational people don’t think that way. That if you were abused as a child, it is ALWAYS a big deal. And you deserve help getting through that.
I don’t know how to segue into this part, or how to speak of it very eloquently, because it’s very, very raw for me. But I think that one of the biggest problems with Father Groeschel and other’s like him seem to be trying to redefine what “counts” as sexual abuse. RAINN defines it here, if anyone is curious. They include the things that a lot of people minimize. Anytime a child’s trust is broken by a loved one is very, very damaging, regardless of the level of physical violence.
Recently I cut off contact with my mother and her family. In a letter to her I explained why, including the sexual abuse that I suffered as a child. It was by no means the focal point of the letter. I made the break mostly because of my mother’s own behavior as of late. But the sexual abuse part? That one little sentence? That is the part her and her family clung to. That is the part that was addressed in my mother’s follow-up angry emails. That was what my grandparents came to my house to “discuss.” And by “discuss” I mean call me crazy, call me a liar, and demand that I denounce my “accusation.” I found that perplexing, and I found it hurtful…but I also found it fascinating. Why was that part, that little aside that I almost didn’t even include in the letter, the part that they clung to? Two reasons, I think: First, I think it was guilt. I think all of them knew that something wrong was done to me. Second, though? And this is where its hard for me to articulate… I think they’re where Father Groeschel is. They’re just hanging out in “not a big deal” land. I think that they know exactly what I was referring to when I said the words “sexual abuse,” I just don’t think they classifying as such in their minds. I think they think of it as my abuser doing something a little inappropriate. But not abuse. How dare I call it that? And their thinking that way? It’s what kept my from getting help for so long. That is why every single evil word that Father Groeschel said is so goddamn reprehensible.